Graded on a Curve:
New in stores January–March, 2016

Our 2016 first quarter overlook is in no way an attempt to be all-encompassing; it’s simply some thoughts and grades on records released in the first three months of the year. Part one can be found here.

Open Mike Eagle & Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group) Although preferable to much of the current hip-hop mainstream, a certain percentage of the fringe can become afflicted with an undercurrent of gimmickry. That’s not the case here; described as an outsider, Eagle’s reality as something different is driven home by a very savvy Wild Man Fischer sample, and his delivery is unlike anybody else I’ve encountered. White’s music is engaging throughout, and the guests including Aesop Rock really add to the whole. A-

Lifetones, For a Reason (Light in the Attic) Anybody wondering about reggae’s depth of impact on Brit post-punk need look no further than right here; featuring This Heat guitarist/vocalist Charles Bullen, don’t think for a second that this is of the same quality as his other band. Thankfully, the focus of this ’83 album is mostly on spongy dub flavors, but as good as it gets, and it gets pretty good on the second side, For a Reason is still something of a footnote, if one sure to enthuse This Heat nuts and post-punk completists the globe over. B

Matthewdavid’s Mindflight, Trust the Guide and Glide (Leaving) Beaucoup kosmische/New Age action that easily validates its title; starts out in mellow-drift mode and hangs there for a long while, but by the 22-minute closer a spacey intensity has been achieved. This sits very nicely beside Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s EARS in the current expansive contempo sound category. A-

Francis Macdonald, Music for String Quartet, Piano & Celeste (Redeye) Teenage Fanclub drummer steps into the chamber classical milieu; as it plays the results are enjoyable yet modest. New ground isn’t broken nor do any extraordinary heights of quality get attained, but Macdonald has roped in some fine players for his brightly hued if unchallenging pieces. B

Tanner Menard, Deepest Indigo (Full Spectrum) Recorded in 2009 and emerging now for no other reason than the issuers find it deserving; falling into the experimental-ambient-drone realm, it’s a CD/digital release designed for random playback. Cited inspirations are the music of Joni Mitchell, the photos of Johnny Utterback, and soft glowing light, and Menard utilizes pianoteq and a custom tuning created by Nicolas Gish to achieve some fine, subtle resonances. Headphones are recommended. A-

MMOTHS, Luneworks (Because Music) After a couple of EPs, the most recent from 2013, this is Irish-born and Los Angeles-based electronic musician Jack Colleran’s full-length debut; the three years of work is evident in the album’s range, from dance-inclined progressions to ambient moments to guitar-assisted cold wave passages to sequences of considerable emotional weight via the severity of Colleran’s falsetto vocals. Best of all; there’s nary a hint of stale retro-shtick. B+

Muncie Girls, From Caplan to Belsize (Animal Style) The best moments here simulate a harder rocking Blake Babies, but they shine through too infrequently amid the good intentions. The energy is present but the songwriting is ultimately hard to distinguish from a multitude of mid-’90s acts that plugged away on the touring circuit, playing so often in half empty clubs they inadvertently hammered the surprise right out of their music. C+

New Planet Trampoline, Dark Rides and Grim Visions (Stow House) These Cleveland psychedelicats reformed last year after an eight year break, and this 2LP completes the album they left unfinished back in 2008. Across 68 minutes they generally keep tabs on a pop sensibility without getting too well-mannered; my favorite moment might be “Confidence Man,” which takes a song with structural affinities to the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” merges it with a gallon jug of Mark Lindsey’s mojo, teeters onto a limb and then saunters back like a champ. B+

Jeb Loy Nichols, Long Time Traveler (On-U Sound) Something of a departure for On-U Sound; a Wyoming native having grown up in Missouri and bailing for the UK (Wales in fact), he’s amassed quite a few records but this one (a reissue from 2010) offers an excursion into smooth reggae with touches of soul, dub, and even American country in the mix. Where the majority of material released under Adrian Sherwood’s auspices is varying degrees of hectic, this album and its extra disc of bonus cuts (seven are alternate mixes) go down warm and easy. B+

Opprobrium, Serpent Temptation (Relapse) Late ‘80s death/thrash metal from a Louisiana-based group (the state’s first, apparently) featuring sibling natives of Rio de Janeiro; this is their debut as issued on Nuclear Blast in ‘88 under the moniker Incubus. In the ‘90s the brothers changed their handle to avoid confusion with an identically named combo and even rerecorded Serpent Temptation, but this ain’t that, ‘tis the original item but with a remastering that’s surely diminished some of the go-for-broke amateurish appeal; for that, check out the four ’87 demo cuts included on the CD as a bonus. B+

Robert Pollard, Of Course You Are (Fire) There are those who have used Pollard’s sheer productivity as an excuse to stop listening, which is a total mistake; the guy will probably never release another consensus masterwork, but he gets quite close here, blending his by-now instantly recognizable pop-rock songs with psych, prog, and baroque elements. Not everything works equally well, but that’s become an integral part of the Pollard approach as it keeps his well-worn recipe from declining into formula. B+

Rats on Rafts, “Last Day on Earth” b/w “Some Velvet Morning” (Fire/Kurious) A record almost as good as its cover. The flip’s punked-out motorik hammering of the Lee and Nancy classic kinda steals the show here, but the plug-side is worth a mention as well, and at five minutes long allows time for both Talk Normal and Eddy Current Suppression Ring to cross my mind. A-

Marta Ren and the Groovelvets, Stop Look and Listen (Record Kicks) Debut album from a Portuguese neo-soul belter. Ren has the pipes but she sometimes lays on the diva sass a little (or a lot) too thick, while the Groovelvets are so tight they occasionally drift into unbecoming flashiness. Still an okay beginning, but those new to the contempo soul field will want to get immersed in Sharon Jones and Nicole Willis first. Fans of the style should investigate, for there are moments here, but be careful around the youngsters; Marta’s got a pottymouth. B

Miranda Lee Richards, Echoes of the Dreamtime (Invisible Hands) Richards has been on the scene for a long time, but this very engaging album marks her return after a gap of seven years. Often compared to Hope Sandoval, this set of psych-folk with country and even baroque flourishes steps out of Mazzy Star’s shadow very nicely; Richards’ pipes are rich and warm but lack pout, and the instrumental palette is wide and welcoming. B+

Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, “All Souled Out” and Mecca and the Soul Brother (Get on Down) Vinyl reissues of two early ’90s hip-hop classics, this debut EP and follow-up full-length loaded with brilliant word-flow and sample-rich complexity. The EP provides a strong taste, and the album is one of the few nearly 80-minute sets to avoid getting bogged down with excess. A-/A (Note: the duo’s worthy ’94 effort The Main Ingredient is also freshly out from Get on Down)

Edward Rogers, Glass Marbles (Zip) Pop-rock classicism from an underrated veteran; the core band features regular producer Don Piper, James Mastro (The Bongos), Sal Maida (Roxy Music/Sparks), and Dennis Diken (The Smithereens), plus he’s roped in a bunch of guests including Ivan Julian (Voidoids), Dave Schramm (The Schramms/Yo La Tengo), and Gaz Thomas (Ronnie Spector). For all the help, this is still a down-to-earth affair designed to spotlight Rogers’ songs (19 cut down from a pool of 50) and low-key but effective singing. It’s a bit long, but this is another rare case of extreme length hurting little. B+

The Roomsounds, Elm St. (Independent) The decision to record at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios fits well with this Dallas-based outfit’s rootsy side, but it’s the power pop elements that really resonate; the ratio of catchiness and heft is well maintained throughout, and its impressive how naturally their undeniably classic approach comes off this far into the 21st. Fans of Petty’s Heartbreakers should investigate without delay. B+

Ty Segall, Emotional Mugger (Drag City) The psych and glam elements deliver a consistent aura of weirdness, but at its core Segall’s latest remains a hard garage wallop sounding best with the volume way up. This qualifies as a solid effort all around, but nothing tops the ripping cover of The Equals’ “Diversion” with guest Dale Crover on drums. A-

Mikael Seifu, “Zelalem” (RVNG Intl.) Described by the artist as “Ethiopiyawi Electronic,” the designation reinforces this 5-song EP as a fusion of Ethiopian musical and cultural tradition with contemporary electronic motifs. Rather than merely grafting together established styles, the results get in the ballpark of something legitimately new, though there are of course familiar elements. Utterly non-clichéd, next to this a whole lot of well-intentioned genre grafting falls down as inadequate. A-

La Sera, Music for Listening to Music To (Polyvinyl) While a fan of Vivian Girls, my attention has strayed from Katy Goodman’s subsequent project, though her “Devils Hearts Grow Cold” single from ’11 was an enjoyable appetizer. This Ryan Adams-produced effort finds guitarist husband Todd Wisenbaker assuming a larger role, and the results are apparently a break from her previous three; personal corroboration will occur eventually, but at the moment this tidy set, at times both mod-tinged and throwback pop-country-ish, is sounding alright (that’s still less than great). B

Shonen Knife, Adventure (Good Charamel) Celebrating 35 years in the biz and with two original members on board, the more than halfway inspired nature of this disc is probably its strongest attribute; having heard only a fraction of this group’s 20 full-lengths, this writer is in no position to authoritatively rank this effort in their discography. Next to Burning Farm, Yama-no Attchan, and Pretty Little Baka Guy, the results are considerably lesser yet still exude a modicum of charm. B

Waco Brothers, Going Down In History (Bloodshot) Englishman Jon Langford is one of the trailblazers in the whole alt-country shebang, and this LP marks the return of his fruitful side-project after an absence of roughly ten years. Steel guitar is gone, and with it nearly all of the C&W feel; replacing it is punkish roots-rocking spiked with a solid Faces cover and some Mekons-like violin on both the title track and the rousing closer. This is like getting a hand-written letter from an old friend in an envelope reeking of cigarette smoke. B+

Wild Nothing, Life of Pause (Captured Tracks) If the majority of this album rose to the heights of splendid guitar-pop ditty “Japanese Alice” it would be a near classic, but unfortunately as established on earlier releases far too much of the running time here is devoted to extending ambitious ’80s pop with prominent production sheen; “Reichpop” reminds that Jack Tatum is an experimenter, but it’s a fact too often forgotten as this plays. B-

WOLVSERPENT, “Aporia:Kala:Ananta” (Relapse) Billed as an EP, this consists of one 40-minute track dishing out some major avant-doom. Things start in string-based contempo classical territory reinforcing Part, Ligeti, and Penderecki as legit influences; gradually the heaviness doth get brought and along the way this Boise Idaho duo distinguish themselves through a solid grasp of ambition as the avant classical-drone-ambient elements get integrated without noticeable strain. A-

XIXA, Bloodline (Glitterhouse) Two members of Giant Sand start a band blending psych-tinged rock with cumbia and its subgenre chichi; specifically, that’s Peruvian cumbia from the Amazon and poor barrios of ’60s and ’70s Lima. The results resist easy comparison but do fit nicely into the impulse of global sonic hybridization. A desert feel appropriate to their Arizona location (occasionally seasoned with Morricone-esque pasta oater guitar) undergoes all sorts of unexpected twists, and the wide ranging vocals briefly nod to Waits and even Cohen; intriguing stuff, particularly finale “Living on the Line.” B+

Adama Yalomba, Waati Sera (Studio Mali Recordings) Frequently superb set from a major Malian talent on par with the African artists currently inhabiting the Glitterbeat roster, a comparison highlighted by Yalomba’s contribution to Bassekou Kouyate’s Ba Power, though the music here thrives on an engaging versatility that stands out from his cohorts. The guitar playing insures Waati Sera never gets too smooth, with the most energetic cut saved for last. A-

yndi halda, Under Summer (Burnt Toast Vinyl/Big Scary Monsters) Eleven years since their debut, the group has been painted as post-rock, and you’ll get no argument from these quarters. The four long tracks rely on organic instrumentation that brings Godspeed to mind, except lacking the Canadian ensemble’s achy and despairing 3-hr B&W Eastern European art-film edge. Due to the vocals this is at times borderline cheery; desolation is preferable, but Under Summer isn’t without its pleasures. B

Yuck, Stranger Things (Mamé) First Yuck to cross my path since their likable self-titled debut from 2011; the departure of Daniel Blumberg leaves a major void. To be clear, Yuck wasn’t an earth-shattering scenario from the outset, but on the first LP they drizzled, flicked and dabbed ’90s indie influences like an action painter into an overall sound that came off as an extension of the decade they so adored. Sadly Stranger Things connects like a CD bought in ’94, one that when taken to the local shop for a trade-in gets rejected because they already have two in the racks and a half dozen in the back. C

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